I’ve read a few blogs and stories lately with parents stating their young children are gender nonconforming. This is great that parents are accepting their children as is and I’m hopeful that this acceptance will decrease the amount of LGBTQ people with depression. My concern is that it seems some people are confusing a child liking things that we consider belonging to the opposite gender as that child being transgender. There is a big difference between a boy who likes princesses and a boy who identifies as a girl. Children are very susceptible to influence from family, and that includes labeling them early on as gender nonconforming even if the intent is to support them in being their true selves.
Children are not born thinking of different objects, colors, and characters as for boys OR for girls. There is no inbuilt gender categorization, which is evident by various cultures and throughout history. It is something we teach to our children intentionally or as part of subconscious enculturation. The idea of something being for boys or for girls is not ingrained, but learned. They learn it from their families, their friends, and from media. It seems that this obliviousness of gender norms is sometimes being interpreted as a child being gender nonconforming.
From my observations with my own child, his friends, and all of the children I have nannied, children begin to really pick up on gender cues around age four. This might be earlier for some children if they are exposed to older children, a lot of media, or family who stress gender conformity. I think childcare and preschool also have an impact on this as many schools reinforce gender stereotypes as well as children picking up things from other children. For instance, a child might be excluded from a game because the other children say they aren’t the right gender for it. Or a teacher lines up all the kids in a boy line and a girl line, thus highlighting the differences between children and genders.
There are also so many phrases and stereotypes ingrained in our culture in regards to children and gender. Boys play sports, are more physical, should have short hair, shouldn’t show emotions, “don’t be a sissy,” “toughen up,” “Mommy’s little monster,” shouldn’t be sensitive and caring to dolls and babies. Girls like to dress up and be pretty, should be hugged and treated carefully, should have long hair, “daddy’s little princess,” like to play quietly together. While there is some science that boys are more likely to play in more physical ways and girls are more likely to play quietly in small groups, nurture vs nature is still up for debate. These subtle and direct gender stereotypes are picked up on my children and incorporated into their sense of self and sense of place in the world.
I have been observing Wallace and his likes and dislikes as they’ve developed and have kept an open mind to what they could mean. As of yet I have no reason to believe that he is transgender or gay and feel he is too young for me to read too much into his actions and choices. He loves bright colors, sparkles and frills, orange, yellow, and pink, playing with dolls, giving hugs and kisses, really wants a baby sister, and can sit quietly and read for an hour. He also loves building things, trains, trucks, digging in his sandbox, climbing as high as he can, jumping off of things, riding his bike, and occasionally asks to watch sports on tv (and it’s hilarious trying to explain the games to him). To compare, as a kid I loved wearing dresses and pretty things, having sword fights with my brother and friends, inventing and making things, crafts, reading, animals and babies, cooking, making messes, and I did numerous sports including Tai Kwan Do. I was a bit of a tomboy but not as much as my best friend, and we ended up both being gay.
There have been a few times that Wallace has said things that make me take a step back and assess his gender. Recently he told me he wanted to be a girl. I asked why and he said because fairies are girls and they are pretty. I acknowledged that but said that boys can be fairies too. There was another time that he was talking to himself while he was on the toilet and I overheard him trying out some girl names and talking about birthing babies. I think he is just experimenting with different roles and has a vivid imagination. He also likes to listen to the Birth Hour podcast with me, so hears a bit about birth regularly.
I do not feel the need to label or declare anything about his gender as he is only four. If it turns out that he is LGBTQ, there’s no doubt I will fully support him, but I don’t want to rush anything or influence him. I believe that we as parents can allow our childen to explore gender whether it is a phase in their childhood or if they truly are gender nonconforming.
I also want to comment on the trend of raising children gender neutral. I see this as one of many ways that we can attempt to downplay cultural gender stereotypes, but not something I wanted to undertake as a parent. I believe that children can develope and identify their true selves in a supportive environment regardless of what pronouns we do or don’t use. And though it is becoming more common, especially among LGBTQ families, it isn’t something that our society is going to accept or support on a large scale anytime soon. We can only keep our children in a bubble of support for so long and that by using neutral pronouns we might inadvertantly draw more attention to and put more pressure on our children in regards to their gender.
For now, Wallace is just a colorful and fun kid who is oblivious to gender stereotypes and I hope he always marches to the beat of his own drum.